The Patriots opened the season with an impressive 33-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
Offensively, Josh McDaniels unveiled his new-look offense in the post-Gronk era going without a tight end on the field for nearly 40 percent of the offensive snaps.
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And the defense held Ben Roethlisberger to only three points in a shutout effort, living up the hype set by the preseason, training camp and the postseason run a year ago.
After reviewing the coaches film, let’s go over some of the high’s and low’s from Sunday night:
ISAIAH WYNN’S DEBUT
Along with the shifts in personnel, we also got to see the regular-season debut for 2018 first-round pick, and starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn.
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On 40 pass-blocking snaps, Wynn allowed only one pressure mostly blocking edge rusher Bud Dupree. He also held up well in the running game.
REST OF OFFENSIVE LINE STRUGGLES
Besides Wynn, the rest of the Patriots’ offensive line has a lot of work to do if Sunday night’s game against the Steelers is any indication.
Pittsburgh does have a fantastic defensive front led by T.J. Watt and Cameron Hayward, but you expect the best from Dante Scarnecchia’s group.
The most surprising performance was a disappointing effort from starting right guard Shaq Mason. A year ago, Mason was Pro Football Focus’s top-graded guard, but he didn’t play like it against the Steelers.
Both Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon struggled individually and as a two-man unit on combination blocks and passing off stunts.
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On this play, Mason’s first step from his inside foot crosses over his outside leg, a cardinal sin for an offensive lineman. As a result, he’s off-balance and unable to anchor, which is when Javon Hargrave bull rushes him into the ground causing a pile-up with Cannon and pressure on Brady. Brady is forced to get rid of the ball, and the Patriots had to kick a field goal.
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Here’s another example of Mason’s poor technique against Stephon Tuitt. This time, he over-sets, losing his leverage and then stops his feet when Tuitt goes to an arm over and an inside counter move. Mason also sets with his hands lower than you’d like and doesn’t land a punch on Tuitt to disrupt his rush. Cannon gets beat inside by Watt too, flushing Brady out of the pocket. Once again, the Patriots kicked a field goal.
In all, the right side of the Pats OL allowed a combined ten quarterback pressures with a team-high seven hurries assigned to Mason.
Along with some poor shotgun snaps by new center Ted Karras, it was not a very good day for the guys protecting Tom Brady despite the result.
CROSSING ROUTES & PRE-SNAP MOTIONS
In another successful maneuver by Josh McDaniels, the Pats OC got the Steelers defense to switch over to more zone coverage in the second half with some man-beaters in the first half.
Pittsburgh came out of the gate playing man coverage, but the Patriots forced them out of it by running a series of crossing patterns and utilizing pre-snap motion.
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Here is one of my favorites on a 17-yard completion to Rex Burkhead. The Patriots are in an empty formation with Burkhead flexed out wide. The Pats running back motions closer to tight end Ryan Izzo before the snap, and Izzo picks Burkhead’s man at the line of scrimmage leading to a big gain.
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Later in the drive, Josh Gordon scored on a similar mesh-style crossing concept. This time, the Steelers sent a slot blitz at Brady with Gordon’s man joining the rush. With the defense in man coverage, someone has to replace the slot corner and cover Gordon, but nobody does, and he’s wide open underneath for the catch and score.
Along with the crossing routes, McDaniels also utilized pre-snap motion to create one-on-ones in space for his best playmakers.
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On this third-down conversion, the Patriots sent Gordon on a dummy sweep, and his man went with him across the formation. The motion by Gordon indicates to the offense that it’s man coverage and clears out the left sideline for James White to go to work. White has an option route based on the leverage from Steelers linebacker Mark Barron. Barron has inside leverage, so White runs the return or whip route, setting up an inside release leading to a break towards the sideline to move the chains.
Eventually, the Steelers incorporated more zone coverages to defend the plays above better, leading to the big gainers in the second half, such as Phillip Dorsett’s 58-yard touchdown.
POTENT PLAY-ACTION PASSING ATTACK
The Patriots were one of the best play-action passing teams in the NFL a year ago, and they picked up right where they left off on Sunday night.
One of my favorite things about McDaniels is that he’ll ride a particular concept until the defense proves it can stop the play.
On Sunday night, Tom Brady hit Julian Edelman on back-to-back play-action crossing patterns gaining 40 yards on the two plays.
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The Patriots ran the same play with Edelman in alone in a reduced split on one side of the formation working out of 21-personnel. They brought the tight end in motion and simulated a fullback lead blocking scheme, which sucked in the linebackers and gave Edelman consecutive completions to drive down the field.
Overall, Brady completed over 70 percent of his passes and averaged nearly 12 yards per attempt on play-action attempts against Pittsburgh.
DONT’A HIGHTOWER, RUN DEFENSE SETS THE TONE
After a disappointing effort in this matchup a year ago, the Patriots held the Steelers to 22 rushing yards on ten carries in the first half while the game was competitive.
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The leader of the pack was a rejuvenated and faster version of their hard-hitting middle linebacker, Dont’a Hightower. Hightower set the tone, and everyone else filled in the gaps.
SECONDARY DOMINATES PITTSBURGH’S RECEIVERS
The Patriots defense, despite a so-so effort from the pass rush, held Ben Roethlisberger to under six yards per attempt in the win.
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New England’s secondary flew around the Gillette Stadium field in complete unison, forcing the Steelers to string together unbelievable individual efforts, which they couldn’t accomplish.
PASS RUSH EXECUTION REMAINS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Despite excellent coverage, the Patriots only pressured Roethlisberger on 11 of his 49 drop-backs, or 22.4 percent.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick decided to go with more of a controlled rush against the tough to bring down Roethlisberger, but the execution up front needs to be better.
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Mainly, the Patriots, with a bunch of new pieces in the front seven, struggled to execute their line stunts that were so successful a year ago. Thanks to those schemes, the Patriots led the league in unblocked pressures in 2018.
As this group builds chemistry together, they should become more disruptive on these types of pressures.